Now, though, at age 126, the museum is looking to its future. Recent staff changes and reassignments have prompted gratitude and hostility, hope and disappointment. But politics aside, the future looks strong. And very smart.
In many ways CAM's future begins this weekend with the opening of Anthony Luensman's solo show, Arenas. For the next three months the city's major art museum will give itself over to one of the city's up-and-coming artists, a homegrown talent.
As we chat, Luensman stands among half-finished sculptures and computers running programs in his Brighton studio, flipping though sketches and plans for the show.
"Timothy (Rub, former CAM director) wanted something -- a show -- that would bring people into the museum, but not just have them bee-line into the Cincinnati Wing and into the gallery to see the new show," Luensman says. "We talked about how to do that, how maybe we could have works throughout the whole museum that might lead (visitors) from one work to another so that they'd eventually make their way through the whole collection."
Steadily moving from one place to another is an apt description of how Arenas came to be -- and of Luensman's career as well.
'Opportunities' in Cincinnati
Luensman, 40, has Cincinnati roots that go back to his days at Elder High School, where he studied, along with artist Mark Fox and many other local artists, under Bob Beemon.
Along with Fox, Luensman established the Saw Theatre Group, an avant-garde performance and puppet troupe that traveled from Cincinnati to San Francisco, New York City, Philadelphia and Detroit. His work -- both in theater and in the visual arts -- has been recognized regionally and internationally.
Luensman's seven-year-long tenure with Saw Theatre allowed him to experiment with light and sound, the technology basics for which he and his work have become so well known. This experimentation is perhaps the main reason his focus has become technology and machinery, the knowledge of which is something he claims just to have picked up along the way.
Fox moved to New York City after his solo show at CAM in 2003, Dust. That exhibition was the first major solo show featured in the Vance-Waddell Gallery in the Cincinnati Wing. It was beautiful and groundbreaking for the museum, but Rub wanted to take the concept even further.
In an e-mail message from Cleveland, where he now serves as director of the Cleveland Art Museum, Rub recounts the conception of Arenas: "With the opening of the Cincinnati Wing in 2003, the museum made a commitment to presenting work by contemporary artists working in Cincinnati in the context of the museum's historical survey of Cincinnati art. Given the history of the CAM and the nature of its relationship to the community, I felt that this was an important thing to do."
Rub says he encouraged Luensman to think about what might be done not only in the Vance-Waddell Gallery but also throughout the museum.
"Part of what makes Tony's art so interesting is his ability to work creatively in a variety of different types of spaces," he says, "and to take full advantage of the possibilities inherent in them."
Anyone familiar with Luensman's work will surely nod his or her head at Rub's sentiment. The work ranges from photography to kinetic sculpture to sound pieces to computerized images. Much of it is playful. Much of it is interactive.
Think of the air-filled plastic sculpture "Player Piano" and the "Paavo's Hands" installations at the Contemporary Art Center's UnMuseum. Both were intended to be used, largely by children. That sense of interaction and playfulness has always been a major part of Luensman's work.
But it's more than just playful. Luensman's art carries an amazing level of sophistication, smarts and vital creativity -- whether it's an amazing light fixture such as "Light Tendrils," which was part of the Carl Solway Gallery's 3D: An Exhibition of Contemporary Art group show last year, or interactive music works like "Player Piano" and "Paavo's Hands" or even a fountain, as in his creation for the Weston Art Gallery's Ideas into Objects: Reinterpreting the Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci exhibition in 2005.
Luensman has traveled extensively but has never relocated from Cincinnati except for his tenure as an undergraduate student at Kenyon College in central Ohio. He's spent time as an artist-in-residence in Taiwan and had his first major solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Taipei. He's also enjoyed a residency program at the Headlands Center for the Arts outside of San Francisco and another at the Sapporo Artist-in-Residence Program in Japan.
After all that, though, he comes home.
"It's not a conscious decision to stay in Cincinnati," Luensman says. "But there are opportunities here, and I continue to have the option of working outside the city as well. I love my studio space. ... It's not something I could have (in other major cities). If it continues this way, I don't see why I would leave."
Luensman isn't one to boast about his awards accolades, but they are many, including a National Endowment for the Arts award, an Individual Artist Grant from the Cincinnati Arts Allocation Committee, an Ohio Arts Council Artist Fellowship and a Summerfair Individual Artist Grant among many others.
His exhibition history is just as considerable: the aforementioned solo shows in Taipei, Taiwan and Sapporo, Japan; Kenyon's Olin Art Gallery; the CAC; and the Weston Art Gallery. His group exhibitions include shows at the Phyllis Weston-Annie Bolling Gallery, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, the Penghu International Earth Art Festival in Taiwan, the Carl Solway Gallery, Mary Baskett Gallery, Publico, Semantics, the Art Academy of Cincinnati, Indiana's DePauw University and the University of Dayton among many others. He even designed inflatable trophies for the 2005 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards' music event.
With this kind of resume and the clear fascination that surrounds his work, it's no wonder Rub immediately thought of Luensman for CAM's first museum-wide exhibition.
'Not trying to fit in'
Luensman stands in another part of his studio -- the "clean space," as he calls it. He's plugging away at one of his new works, "The Coliseum."
This sculpture is divided into two sections and looks rather like the real Roman Coliseum, only small and made of wood and plastic. Luensman turns it on. Heads bop and waggle. The crowd goes crazy.
"It's activated by movement," he says. "So when someone walks through, it's like they're in the center getting the applause."
Fun, unexpected. But there's more to the work than that.
"I'm playing with the idea of the Roman Coliseum, bringing it up to date," Luensman says.
Of course, the idea of the Coliseum conforms to our notion of the exhibition's title, Arenas, and the most obvious relationship between title and art exists here.
But Luensman's title isn't as simple as that. He thinks of the entire museum as an arena, which is not to say the museum is a site for spectacle. Rather, Luensman plays with the notion of a place of conflict. Not gladiators now, not here in this space: The conflict represented in this arena is about time and expansion, the borderlines between childhood and adulthood, the overlapping of innocence and guilt.
"Not that I really planned it," Luensman says, "but all these spaces (his sculptures) are simultaneously internal and external."
More than that, Arenas shows us how we place ourselves in the world. "Man in Nature" is a set of three computerized paintings, each transferring an item of the natural world (the moon) into an item of the body (the ear).
In other words, the viewer is the arena, mind adrift with inner conflicts, struggling with who he or she is in this world.
Luensman's work helps bring all these hidden thoughts to life.
In playing with the Coliseum, Luensman also brings the CAM's collection of ancient artifacts and sculptures into a new light.
"Yeah, I'm playing off a few of the pieces," he says. "But it's less about interventions and more about surprises."
CAM isn't the first institution to think of a museum-wide exhibition. Kara Walker took a couple of galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and transformed them into her own creations. Like Luensman, she played off the more traditional works in the Met's space.
Fred Wilson is known for his smart, institutional critiques, for which he rearranges the objects in a museum to give them entirely new meanings. Think of putting slave shackles into a viewing box filled with 18th-century silver.
Luensman, however, doesn't like the comparison.
"Walker and Wilson use their work as invasions," he says. "I'm not trying to fit in (with CAM's collection) or to compete with it."
Rub doesn't like the comparison either.
"While some might be tempted to compare Tony's work to Kara Walker's or Fred Wilson's," he says, "I think the differences between them are more striking. Whereas Wilson rearranges works of art from a museum's collection to reinterpret or re-contextualize them -- and thereby to give it a new set of meanings -- and Walker uses galleries as essentially 'theatrical' spaces, Tony is inclined to work with the building itself and the possibilities for 'interventions' that he finds in it."
Luensman smiles a little, thinking.
"There's a dinge factor (in the museum), a mustiness to it," he says. "It can seem so weighed down."
As he sees it, Luensman's role is not to put his very contemporary work at odds with the old master works and treasures already in the collection. He wants to make the old work look new again and wants for us, the viewers, to come in with fresh eyes and be surprised at how a little "radiance" can wipe away the dust.
That brings us to the first work in the Arenas exhibition: a large waterfall windshield.
"I sort of extended the boundaries," Luensman says. "So now I'm starting outside the museum, starting on the second floor balcony outside."
The work is what he calls the show's "billboard." It is, in fact, as big as a billboard and shaped like one. Except that it's not a billboard -- it's a windshield with Plexiglas and real water raining down on it and a wiper that actually wipes away the water.
"The machinery is so elaborate it's absurd," Luensman says. "It's an absurd gesture ... but I think of it like this porthole."
It's part of the museum's architecture, but not quite. It's a way into the museum, but not really.
It's a funny kind of exaggeration: Get rid of the water in your eyes. Clear your mind. The Cincinnati Art Museum is not what you remember.
'Synthetic natural world'
Arenas really isn't supposed to have any overarching themes, according to Luensman. But it does. The concepts behind it have as much to do with the artist as with his space.
Simply put, it's the past versus the present.
Thinking about CAM without thinking of its history is nearly impossible. In 1881, when the museum was founded, Cincinnati didn't look like it does now. When Eden Park came into existence, a setting was created for the museum.
Back then, though, Eden Park wouldn't be considered "natural" in the way we think of it today. Back then the organization of a park would have been very obviously "a created space," not something that burst into existence on its own.
That's something we tend to forget when we're standing at the far end of the Cincinnati Wing and looking out the windows onto the "natural world" of a park, which is actually a counterfeit nature.
Leave it to Luensman not to forget, though. In front of those windows will be his "Forsythia and Fireflies," a sculptural work that harkens back to a suburban childhood.
Different levels of Plexiglas contain LED wires that pop and blink with yellow lights, along with synthetic flowers. In front of this edifice will be an old wire fence with a gate -- something easily pictured among suburban homes in the Midwest.
Stephen Bonadies, CAM's deputy director of exhibitions and public programming, talks about "Forsythia and Fireflies" in the museum's café.
"Mark Harris (director of DAAP's School of Art) has called it a synthetic thicket," Bonadies says. "I think that's the idea. Tony's critiquing nature, using these industrial products to make the synthetic seem natural. A synthetic natural world."
Ah, so much like Eden Park once would have seemed.
"That's just it," he says. "This is what the show is all about. It's prompted us and stimulated our thoughts."
What's the difference between our urban landscape and the hyper-new work that Luensman creates? Or, to make it a little simpler, what's the difference between using paint or marble as media or using LEDs and digital computer programming as media?
The answer is time. Things that seem new and sometimes strange to us will seem old-fashioned in a couple of generations. That's the thing about time -- it distorts the novelty of the past.
Much of Luensman's work for Arenas carries with it an element of the past and looking anew at the past -- whether we think about it in terms of Cincinnati's past, the museum's past or a personal past doesn't really matter. They're all here.
Luensman is leery about considering the work too personal or too much about one certain thing. It's easy to understand why -- his work shouldn't be dumped into a certain thematic standpoint, at least not a single standpoint.
And yet here I am, talking about the past. But I'm not the only one.
From his office at the University of Cincinnati, Harris talks about what has drawn him to Luensman's work, so much so that he's written the essay for the Arenas catalogue, due out in April.
"We are used to work made with conventional materials to convey personal narratives," Harris says. "In not so familiar a way, industrial materials can be turned into personal narratives as well ... but with Tony there is a distance between the object and what it represents. It's never sentimental. There's always a gap between machine and content."
"You can see the personal memories in his work, what was important in his childhood," he says. "But it transcends childhood. It stimulates memories. There's not that nostalgic looking back."
Indeed, there is very little nostalgia in the works -- even in those, like the "Tree House," which seem so intimate.
"Tree House" is the only work in Arenas that has its own room: the Asian Rug Gallery. (The rug will be removed.) The work is deceptively simple: whitewashed wood pillars and scaffolding holding a kind of light box on top, where one would expect a child to be playing.
Yet there aren't children playing, only "vague, mechanized shadows," Luensman says, that shrug around the light box in an ominous way.
"Of course it's about childhood," Luensman says. "But it's not that simple. It's about lost innocence. Borderlines."
It's that in-between space where childhood simplicity overlaps with the beginnings of shame, lurking habits and anxious mistakes.
"I don't know about you," Luensman says, "but my childhood wasn't without shadows."
A map of his world
Matt Wizinsky, CAM's exhibition designer, says this show has been different from anything he's ever worked on. It's a couple of weeks before the opening, and he hasn't seen Luensman's work.
"The objects don't exist yet," he says, obviously excited. "I have a sense of where they're going to go, but I have to be open to changes."
Not only is the exhibition itself entirely new, but the approach to interpretation is also quite different.
"Since (the visitor) is not walking into a specific gallery, they might only catch two or three of Tony's works," Wizinsky says. "It's a unique show for the visitor as well. There is no order, no interpretation, no museum voice."
He explains that CAM is trying to remain as tone neutral as possible and let the work do the talking. They'll have one wall panel to serve as a kind of introduction, and there will be a gallery guide written by Luensman himself.
"It's going to be almost like a game board," Wizinsky says of the guide. "A map, but not straightforward. It's going to be fun, lively, childlike. It's very interactive."
The map won't give you a route, but it will let you know where the works are. How you search them out is up to you. You could, if you wanted to, march through the museum to get to each piece, say you saw it and go home.
But that's not really what Arenas is all about. Try to move through the museum-wide exhibition without expecting anything. See if the works pop out at you. See if they make sense within their space.
I know I'm barely scratching the surface of what you'll happen upon in Arenas. Each work is a surprise, and I hate spoiling surprises.
ARENAS opens at the Cincinnati Art Museum Saturday and continues through May 20.